Today we welcome Gavin Deas the author of the stunning Empires: The First Battle back to the blog for a **SPOILER FILLED** review of The Force Awakens. You have been warned.
The two-headed monster that is Gavin Deas has been fighting again. This time, however, they’re not arguing over the colour of lasers, or who’d win a fight between a dragon and mech. No, this time it’s serious. This time they’ve both been to see Star Wars: the Force Awakens. First up, representing the Dark Side of the Farce, Gavin Smith:
So my opinions on the Star Wars franchise are pretty well established. Any doubts you can read them here: Jupiter Ascending is better than Star Wars.
That said I tried, I really tried to like this film but with all the baggage it was always going to be an uphill struggle. Here are just a few of the glaring issues with this film:
If we ignore the unpleasant atmosphere of intimidation on social media in the run up to the film (so festive!) then, in my opinion, the film starts going wrong during the intro. It takes a special kind of talent to harpoon both this film and the preceding original trilogy with a couple of lines of text but somehow Abrams/Disney manage this. In the preceding thirty or so years, after Return of the Jedi, the new republic that Han, Luke & Leia fought and sacrificed so much for has failed miserably. Beta Empire is up and running and has the Republic on the run again and they’re now calling themselves the Resistance. This is presumably because everyone likes an underdog story. Or perhaps Abrams (who I’m unfortunately, and unfairly, going to single out as the author of this film’s woes) believes that the Republic, with their wishy-washy liberalism, are doomed to failure and it’s only the space-fascists that can get the space trains to run on time. So the opening statement of The Force Awakens is that the original trilogy, which everyone is supposed to love so much that social media users soil themselves at the slightest whiff of information on the new film, were just a colossal waste of time because here we are right back at square one.
This theme of the original trilogy being a waste of time continues when we reach Tatooine 2.0 (Jenku? Jenga? Tetris or something, it was a really dull planet). Here we have a society living in abject misery who still, for some reason, think the Republic is a good thing. At least under the Empire Uncle Owen was able to maintain a reasonable middle class existence as a moisture farmer. On the plus side we do meet the cutesy, and highly merchandisable, new droid whose existence hints that R2-D2 got really drunk during the celebrations at the end of RotJ and fucked a beachball.
This undermining of the original trilogy is necessary, of course, because The Force Awakens is a rather shameless and cynical remake of A New Hope. Because we as the audience don’t deserve anything more than the same old ideas, with added lens glare, chewed up and then regurgitated back into our hungry, nerdy throats. Because apparently nobody could think of anything new.
So a missing Luke Skywalker is this year’s McGuffin, things got tough and he abdicated his responsibilities and fucked off. Doubtless there’s more to this than meets the eye but with the information we, and the Resistance, are given during the film this is certainly how it looks. So valuable resources are diverted from the war effort to go and look for this loser. He has, of course, left clues because he didn’t really want to be on his own. Clues, mind you, as opposed to saying: If interstellar war breaks out, because we utterly failed to consolidate our position after the last one, you can find me here. No, that would have been too easy, because he wants to make it difficult, because he wants them to want him, presumably due to some horrible messianic complex.
We meet a new bad guy. I think his name is Darth Couldn’t-Be-Bothered-To-Give-Him-A-Cool-Costume-So-We-Just-Put-Him-In-A-Ski-Mask. A bad guy so wet that even the most sensitive of Star Wars fans would have struggled not to mercilessly bully him at school. This is a villain I suspect embraced the dark side because Leia used to make him tidy his room and the nice girls didn’t like him. Uncomfortably he seems to have a school shooting (well, lightsabering) incident in his past. Darth Ski Mask then gets beaten up by an untrained jediling (though why he doesn’t kill her in the five or so minutes she’s meditating during their fight is beyond me), thus utterly undermining any possibility of any bad-assness in future films. (Can I point out that my criticism of this is due to bad storytelling and massive deus ex machina rather than the gender of said Jediling? Thanks.) Darth Maul must be spinning in his grave. His wetness and the lack of empathy engendered for any of the characters also completely undermines (*spoilers*, you whiney people) the death of Han. It’s just another predictable event in this carbon copy film, with Harrison Ford acting as a cut-price Alec Guinness: an elderly gentleman utterly baffled by what’s going on around him but he has to die because, oh the pathos!
Then there’s the new multi-planet destroying super weapon, I think this one was called the Death Planet or the Death Alpine Forest, I was quite bored by this point. I have no idea why nobody noticed this being built. I mean, the Death Star I get, space is big and it could move, but this is a planet they’ve turned into a gun, and by gun I mean you can see the continent sized barrel. Did the Republic think they were putting in a patio or something? (Actually my partner suggested that because the weapon is solar powered they probably got a commendation from the Republic for eco-friendly weapons of mass destruction.) And how do the Republic/Resistance/Generic Underdogs deal with this threat? Well, they don’t even have to try too hard these days. No Bothan spies had to die this time round. Just a quick (and unconvincing) brainstorming session, a bit of gentle bombing, and some help from an elderly gentleman, a deserter, this week’s star contestant on Jedi Apprentice, and a bipedal afghan hound. Seriously, why do the Empire even bother? They really need to stop using the same weapons designer. What about BAE? They enjoy supplying arms to despotic regimes.
And I could go on and on: the plot holes, the previously mentioned deus ex machina, the lack of consistency and sense in the behavior of the characters, the utter and complete lack of character motivation (seriously, as it is set up in the film, Finn going to rescue Rey was as convincing as me storming the planet of the space fascists to rescue one of the people I’d met at dinner for the first time just before I went to see the film) etc. etc. It’s normally at this point someone (and by someone, it’s frequently Stephen) says: “But it’s Star Wars!” Well yes, if Star Wars is a byword for mediocrity and lazy storytelling they have a point. If, however, it’s an invocation designed to let it off the hook for its myriad failings, then I’m afraid not. Of course the other criticism I sometimes receive for not liking Star Wars is that my heart is dead because I cannot embrace the childlike wonder of the franchise. But I loved Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter, both of which instill a strong sense of wonder, but both of them, despite their issues, tell stories that make sense, and have consistency within the worlds they set up. They also have things like dialogue, characters, y’know, film stuff. Star Wars doesn’t. This is exploitative nostalgia-porn at it’s most cynical. Abrams has built his plot out of flanginium and seems to have such a high degree of contempt for the audience that he believes they’ll swallow any old shit, so there’s no need for a coherent story.
The Farce Awakens took an estimated budget of somewhere between $175-200 million to make, and at least half as much again on promoting the film. Don’t the audience, particularly the loyal die hard fans, deserve a little better than a shoddily-told remake of the first film, with ideas and a plot now close to forty years old? Perhaps a little less emphasis on obnoxious and invasive marketing campaigns and a little more emphasis on putting a good story together are in order?
And representing the light side of the Force (and less likely to be put into a Wicker Man by angry Star Wars fans), Stephen Deas:
The Force is Dead, Long Live the Force
I come not to praise Star Wars but to bury it . . . no, wait, you’re not going to buy that, and it’s not true, because mostly I liked The Force Awakens, but I wonder if something like that was going through JJ Abrams’ thoughts when he made The Force Awakens, right behind “Yay, I get to make astrophysicists cry almost as much as when a I had a spaceship sit half inside a singularity in Star Trek.”
The original Star Wars: A New Hope was a mythical epic fantasy story that happened to have spaceships and blasters. It was aimed squarely at being a family movie, which means it was aimed at pre-pubescent adolescent boys on the grounds that all dads have a not-so-inner twelve-year old and the assumption that no mums back in the seventies would have anything to do with anything that had spaceships. The dialogue and the acting were ropey, the effects were staggering and the storytelling was epic in scale, epically unoriginal and nevertheless epic. The Force Awakens jumps back to that sense of the epic and the adolescent, to the extent that it’s not so much a sequel as a remake of A New Hope that tries at the same time to reboot the entire franchise.
Does it manage it? I thought the best way to find out might be to FORCE an opinion out of an actual twelve year old who turned out not to have enough Christmas homework. So here it is.
“The force awakens is a great film with great acting that really brings back the spirit of star wars. I only have a few gripes with it. It was a good choice to hire actors who were not particularly famous for the main roles as they really tried hard and made for a great performance. The star killer base is my only bad comment on the film. It is completely useless. It devours a sun to charge its laser but doesn’t have any engines so once it’s fired it’s just sitting there completely useless with a massive hole in the middle making it really vulnerable to attack . Anyway that’s the only really bad thing about the movie. I really like the storyline and it would be cool to see Kylo Ren’s character evolve and I also like the new stormtroopers a lot!! Final verdict 9\10 its way better than the prequels but falls just short of the original trilogy.”
Pretty much that. I guess I could pick at some of the narrative leaps stretching the bounds of even cartoonish fantasy for no good reason. I could moan that it’s not entirely clear whose story we’re watching (which character has a goal and an arc with a beginning, a middle and an end?), glower at how a single consistent theme was there for the taking and yet was somehow missed, and rant at some length at absolutely everything about the villains except Kylo Ren, but . . .
But we’re back where Star Wars belongs. The look and feel take us there, the action is fierce and urgent, evil is EVIL, the storytelling is epic, even if it’s a bit hit and miss this time around, and most of all the story is about family again – because Rey IS a Skywalker, right? She has to be. We’re back with classic epic fantasy with blasters and spaceships and lightsabres and adolescents finding themselves.
The Force Awakens is a step forward too. A couple of days before I saw it, I overheard two mums, both with young girls in tow, raving over and over about how great the film was for girls. The original trilogy was for adolescent boys and their adolescent fathers. This one tries to be for everyone. And while it has its problems as a standalone film, we all know this is just act one of . . . some number or other, and that’s important because not only has Abrams recaptured most of the essence of the originals and repackaged it to be more inclusive, he’s also killed those originals dead. That, as much as anything, is the significance of Han Solo’s death for those of us who went to see the originals in the cinema – and even you, Gavin, ought to be happy for that. The Force Awakens may be a rehash of A New Hope which isn’t quite as good, but it’s also a new hope that the franchise can finally shake itself loose of its own baggage and find its way back to what made it great.
Gavin Smith’s The Beauty of Destruction will be published on the 21st January and Empires: Infiltration and Elite Dangerous: Wanted written as Gavin Deas (a shared world novel written in conjunction with Stephen Deas) are available in hardback and eBook.